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The Teacher’s Craft: How Japan Fosters Great Teaching Methods

Graphic by Cassidy Heaton

It’s an old story that’s resurrected every few years when an international assessment of math publishes its results: The U.S. students are trounced again by the students from several East Asian countries. Some even dismiss these studies all together after a popular book by Malcolm Gladwell hypothesized that students in other countries score higher simply because they work harder. Country scores on one of the most popular international assessments, the TIMSS, are almost perfectly predicted by a measure of work ethic of a country. The students score higher in East Asian countries because they are taught, and pressured, to work so hard—case closed.

But Doug Corey, BYU mathematics education professor, argues it isn’t that simple.

“The conclusion that Malcolm Gladwell arrives at is not accurate. The study he cites is done at the country level, not the individual, the classroom, or school level,” Corey said.

That is, the measure of work ethic in some studies is not just a measure of how hard students work, but how hard everyone in the country works, including teachers, administrators, and curriculum developers.

“Of course the students work hard there. But they also have, at least in Japan, incredible instruction by teachers that are very well prepared and work extremely hard to develop students’ understanding of mathematics in very coherent and connected ways,” Corey said.   

Corey believes the secret to improving students’ mathematical performance lies not only in a student’s work ethic, but also in the teacher’s craft. Because Japanese teachers had such a great reputation for quality teaching, he decided to focus his research on them.

He began researching Japanese math teachers after he came to BYU as an assistant professor of mathematics education in August 2007.  

“When I came to BYU, the big question I was trying to understand was: What should we be looking at in a classroom to know if good instruction is happening?” Corey said.

He teamed up with fellow BYU professor Dr. Blake Peterson, a Japanese speaker, who traveled to Japan to record and analyze nineteen conversations between seven math student teachers and their cooperating teachers. The student teachers from a southern Japan university showed their lesson plans to their cooperating teacher, who then discussed the plan with them for thirty minutes and suggested revisions. These discussions happened three or four times for every lesson the student teachers prepared. Only when the lesson was good enough did the cooperating teacher literally give the plans a stamp of approval, and the student teacher was allowed to teach the math lessons to students at a local middle school.

Corey and Peterson showed that the Japanese teachers worked from a coherent set of principles about instruction that helped them develop engaging, rich lessons. Their study in 2010 was titled “Are There Any Places That Students Use Their Heads? Principles of High-Quality Japanese Mathematics Instruction.”     

The work studying Japanese teachers has already helped BYU improve their mathematics education program. BYU Mathematics Education faculty drastically changed the structure of student teaching based off their observations in Japan. Now, BYU students teach fewer lessons and collaborate more with professional teachers and other student teachers. These changes allow the student teachers’ time and resources to focus on developing the best lessons and receiving feedback so as to improve teaching practice.

The BYU colleagues videotaped some of BYU’s student teachers under this new program to research its effectiveness.  Corey and two colleagues, Blake Peterson and Keith Leatham, analyzed the results of these changes by comparing the instructional quality of the BYU student teachers to Japanese student teachers. The results were quite positive. On the vast majority of dimensions the BYU students were comparable or better than the Japanese student teachers. The Japanese student teachers were more precise in their language and made fewer errors. However, BYU students were better at eliciting engagement and student-to-student interaction.

Corey’s research extends beyond just student teaching. Because a large percentage of teachers in Japan teach so well, he wants to understand how Japan’s teaching culture transforms teachers right out of college into excellent teachers several years later.

“They seem to have a very predictable and strong growth curve once [Japanese] teachers start to teach. They’re clearly going to be a lot better five years out, and they’re clearly going to be better than that 10 years out, and that’s not necessarily true for U.S. teachers,” Corey said.  “The quality of their instruction will improve, but it might not improve much from their second year to their tenth year.”

One example of how Japan fosters better teaching is access to detailed lesson plans from teachers used in classrooms.

The Japanese spend time studying and discussing lesson plans at lesson study conferences, and reading books full of lesson plans sold in commercial bookstores around the country.

Exposure to so many specific lesson plans gives Japanese teachers a “feel” for what makes a good lesson.

“One of the saddest things about the U.S. teaching system is when an expert teacher retires, they take that knowledge with them. We don’t have a way to capture that kind of knowledge that a lot of teachers have worked really hard to accumulate,” Corey said. “But they do in Japan through these lesson plans.”

Corey currently researches multiple sets of lesson plans, both in Japan and the U.S., to understand the kind of information that the Japanese put in their detailed lesson plans.

“They don’t just include the nuts and bolts of the lesson, they include a lot of background information about the mathematics, about the decisions that were made in the lesson, and why they were made,” he said.

Few lesson plans like the one Corey described above exist in the U.S. However, Corey has found a couple sources of lesson plans in the U.S. that do capture this kind of knowledge.

“Now we just need to continue to build a culture of teaching in the U.S. where teachers are seeking out such resources consistently, and perhaps we can start to see the improvement in practice seen in Japan,” Corey said.

Note: This article was originally written in our published science magazine Frontiers. Read the magazine here.